The complex relationship between productivity, technology and working anywhere
by Mark Eltringham
A 2018 paper produced by Lancaster University’s Work Foundation and commissioned by Citrix, highlights the complex and often strained relationship between productivity, technology, work and the idea of working anywhere. Despite the march of digital transformation, one in four (24 percent) UK managers questioned for this report believe their organisation is not technologically ‘forward thinking’. With Britain’s productivity slowdown the largest of the G7 economies since the recession, over three in five (63 percent) of knowledge workers polled believe they are no more productive today than they were three years ago, with 17 percent even claiming to be less industrious. The paper – Productivity, technology & working anywhere – shows an undeniably positive link between correctly-implemented technology and workplace productivity. However this progress can soon by marred by poor business planning, a lack of innovation, outdated IT and low uptake of flexible working cultures. The research is supported with survey responses from 1,000 knowledge workers and 500 managerial level employees within medium and large organisations across the UK.
The Work Foundation hosted in-depth interviews with academics, private business leaders and the public sector to glean insights around the theme of productivity, access to technology and the role it plays in supporting job performance. The report outline key recommendations for UK businesses to address this challenge – calling out the importance of fostering innovation and boosting ‘intra-preneurship’; defined as encouraging those within a business that are comfortable with experimenting and taking risks to solve problems to step forward and take the lead.
Productivity stagnating despite evolution of technology
Four in five (80 percent) workers polled – who see a link between technology offered and their productivity levels – acknowledged the positive effect access to technology can have on their productivity levels. When asked which factors will most affect their productivity levels in the future, respondents at employee level called out technology (53 percent) and changing working practices such as flexible working (45 percent) as the top two influencers. The managers polled agreed with these sentiments, with training and skills (51 percent), stronger leadership (46 percent) and better technology (44 percent) listed as key industry drivers.
However, any old IT won’t cut it. It is clear that up-to-date, fast and performing technology is required to make the difference between enhanced productivity and inefficiency. One respondent cited: “[My technology at work is] always slow, not up-to-date, unreliable, it’s rubbish – I lose a day because my laptop is so old”. Another stated: “It breaks down a lot, it’s buggy [and] slow, it needs updating [and] the system crashes frequently.”
Waning flexible working culture
Over a third (36 percent) of all respondents have seen their offices merged or downsized since they’ve been in their roles, with workers stating that ‘hot-desking’ (45 percent) and remote / flexible working (24 percent) were two alternatives commonly put forward in light of these changes.
Despite these moves – and previous research indicating that 2017 was set to be the ‘tipping point’ for mobile working – seven in 10 (71 percent) of workers who are based in an office location claimed they are still not given the opportunity to work remotely or away from their usual workplace. Less than one in 10 (8 percent) workers believe remote and flexible working is ‘actively encouraged’ by their organisation and measured though outcomes and outputs of staff, and almost a third (32 percent) of workers also claim their organisation still restricts flexible working to certain job roles and levels.
One in three (34 percent) managers – who stated their organisation is currently downsizing/merging physical office space – admitted they believe future of work practices such as flexible working and hot-desking will actually worsen productivity levels at their workplace. Further, nearly one in four (23 percent) managers, whose organisation offers remote / flexible working or across sites, also admitted thinking that those who work away from HQ or the main office are less productive than their HQ-based counterparts.
Working on a solution
The report outlined four key recommendations for businesses seeking to build more uniform practices in a bid to tackle the productivity dilemma:
Leadership: It is vital that leaders both tell the story, and live the values embodied in it. Leadership visibility, accessibility and storytelling are therefore crucial in times of change to raise sights and build the aspirational goal or vision to work towards.
Innovation: Organisational productivity could be enhanced by explicitly acknowledging that some individuals are more comfortable with experimenting with new technologies and processes than others. By supporting such ‘innovation champions’ or ‘intrapreneurs’ – who aren’t always at the senior level but have the skills to identify and put new processes into practice – and giving them room to make mistakes, organisations set themselves up to discover new and more efficient ways of performing for their customers or users.
Policies, procedures, evaluation & planning: Once new innovations and practices are more widely rolled out, it is important that the fit between old and new are appropriately reviewed and old policies updated, otherwise the effects of new ways of working will be limited. It is essential therefore that in any change programme, organisations deploy transparent systems and processes to support the new delivery on the ground.
Management & employee engagement: A successful change strategy also depends on a collaborative approach which pools knowledge, expertise and resources from across the organisation. Rather than simply deploying new technology deemed appropriate by the leadership, the resulting vision needs to be built on a strong rational, case for change at all levels. Line managers play a critical role here as the interface between employees and the strategic decision makers in an organisation.
Citation: The research was conducted by a team at The Work Foundation including: Lesley Giles, Helen Sheldon, David Shoesmith and Cicely Dudley with valuable input from other colleagues.